teaparty

Last week’s motley collection of protests against taxation, centralization and the Government are now old news, but their spirit remains perennially relevant. Invoked in the name of the original “Boston Tea Party,” the patchwork of local Tea Parties sought to revive the spirit of protest against a distant and arbitrary government. While a number of commentators have rightly noted that this most recent set of “tea parties” did not share a central feature of the original Boston tea party – namely, a protest against “taxation without representation” – in a deeper sense, there is a profound continuity between these two protests, even if the circumstances and the particular governments in question are radically different. While in our current age we are citizens of an representative democracy in which all of us (except for DC citizens) can claim the right and privilege representation, in fact we are individually less represented than ever, more subject to titanic forces over which we exercise little if any control, and frustrated at the sense of impotence and irrelevance that the impersonality and massness of modern political and economic life thrusts inescapably upon us. The tea parties were wildly incapable of articulating the true sources of this frustration, but the frustration is real and our “leaders” are well advised not to ignore those frustrations. Indeed, it presents a moment of enormous danger as well as possibility: from this frustration might arise a populist demagogue who could foment destructive revolutionary impulses that are ill-directed and aimed solely at denunciations of “elites,” the wealthy, and liberals. However, an able spokesman might possibly be able to give articulate voice to these frustrations, one that transcends contemporary Left/Right distinctions and above all – like the original Boston Tea Party – rests on demands for a true and significant form of self-government.

Ironically, the protests are directed against Government precisely because government is the one potentially responsive large-scale agent in the modern world. “The people” theoretically can exercise some degree of control over large private entities such as corporations – particularly in the form of boycotts or “market”demands – but such institutions are largely insulated from direct popular pressure unless such pressure can be sustained in ways that are difficult in modern mass society. A far more promising avenue is anger directed at “Guvment,” at once born of frustration at its disdain toward and neglect of the concerns of ordinary citizens, and the understanding that the most responsive modern institution toward such anger is likely to be government.

At the same time, the national government is a massive and largely impersonal organization. Like most modern organizations, it is composed of innumerable faceless functionaries whose job is largely to render all problems and concerns subject to administrative logic and “rationalization.” Government is largely something we perceive to be “out there”: even those of us who regularly vote know that our vote is a tiny fraction of actual sovereignty, and that even changes in representatives will result in small actual changes to the daily grind of the administrative State. While we are theoretically citizens, we regard Government as something alien and separate from us, an entity hardly comprehensible and barely under control. Programming ranging from the X-Files to “24″ capture our fears that the government is actually run by shadowy figures who aim to harm us – and, at the same time, that the only source of our potential salvation are other government functionaries who, for some inexplicable and old-fashioned noble reason – have the interest of ordinary people at heart. Agents Mulder and
Scully, and Jack Bauer spend as much time fighting against their own government as they do against external agents who mean us harm. Government is thus the source of our fear and our ire, and the only institution with some modicum of public spirited heroism that might combat those internally destructive forces.

We should understand that “the system” was designed to render us relatively politically insignificant and inert (or, “tractable”) while, it was hoped, any potential frustrations from that public irrelevance would be obviated by great potentials for private success, particularly economic opportunities and prosperity. The modern liberal project of mass legitimating “democracy” was a wager designed to purchase our acquiescence to political insignificance in favor of private satisfactions. It was the literal reversal of the ancient and Christian counsels that private satisfactions needed forms of restraint whose sources derived from publically defined conceptions of common weal, and at their most expansive demanded a strong degree of publically shaped and determined self-government.

This wager has proven itself to be enormously successful: liberated of age-old prohibitions against self-aggrandizement, pride, lust, and self-seeking, and told instead that what had formerly been regarded as slavish, hubristic or sinful behavior was now the very basis of what constituted the public “virtue” (in Mandeville’s articulation, “private vices” led to “publick virtues,” a summary that lie at the heart of John Locke’s political formulation and Adam Smith’s economic theories in The Wealth of Nations), the modern wager sought to achieve a high degree of public irrelevancy by means of private satiations. One must marvel at how well this wager has borne out.

However, as I have argued elsewhere, this wager rested at the deepest level upon the premise of eternal economic growth and expansion of “opportunity.” The rising inequality of the citizenry, combined with their public irrelevance, required a backdrop in which one’s relative position was always subject to radical improvement (or, potentially, shattering failure). Private material satiation was not sufficient, since such satiation was always relative: a few would be demonstrably more “satiated” than the many, and absent the prospect that increased opportunities for satiation would be potentially available to those in a comparatively less “satiated” condition, modern liberalism realized that discontent with our actual insignificance and lack of public and political dignity could quickly take the upper hand. For this reason, every contemporary political leader – regardless of party or ideology – regards it as the primary and uncontested aim of contemporary policy to maintain growth. Absent such growth, not only is any politician’s term of office likely to be brief, but the actual legitimacy of the entire political and economic system is likely to be put under enormous stress and threat.

The recent Tea Parties were generally born of poorly articulated frustration, but at base that frustration derives from the felt sense of public indignity and irrelevance. To maintain a system of endless growth, modern structures – whether public or private – have necessarily undergone accelerated consolidation. The demands for market efficiencies and economies of scale have provided the logical impetus at ever-greater massification and centralization, and the evisceration of significant local forms of governance or economic arrangements. At every turn the modern citizen – theoretically the source of all political legitimacy and the director of modern policy – is in fact everywhere deprived of the actual capacity to exercise any meaningful control over their own fates or the basic decisions that would guide their lives. We are implicitly told that this is a good bargain – we are relieved of the burdens of self-government while being told that smart and clever people distant and unknown to us are working hard to ensure that our futures will be better and brighter. Amid profound cognitive dissonance, we attack government for depriving us of any significant voice in our own future, unaware that what we actually crave is a truer form of self-government. This frustration is understood by the distant powers to be a call for further rationalization, further consolidation and renewed efforts to ensure a future of economic growth and opportunities for material satiation. For many of us shaped by these deep set of modern presuppositions, we somewhat accept that our happiness lies in these increases of private satiation – and thus, many of the Tea Partiers demanded less government intervention in the private realm – even as they pointed often to a deep dissatisfaction to the apparent discounting of our contemporary selfish actions against the prospects of future generations. I can’t help but hear in the frustration of many who gathered in these Tea Parties an echo of the original participants of the Boston Tea Party, namely a call for the opportunity to govern ourselves. What was striking was that this call was not directed against a dictatorial and unelected King, but a government elected by the populace. Still, its distance was just real as that which once separated us from the British Crown, as was the felt sense that decisions being made by those distant leaders were being taken without any real regard for the lives and destinies of ordinary citizens far flung and diversely placed.  More to the point, the decisions of the distant government appear to be made for the advantage of the well-placed, those favored by the Government because of their positions of prominence.  Government seems to willfully demonstrate our irrelevance and impotence.

In today’s New York Times Tom Brokaw calls for greater efficiencies in the governing of the local places of America. He notes with disappointment the resistance of local politicians to recent proposals to consolidate “inefficient” local governments in the State of New York – citing “parochialism” and what must be antiquated resistance to “evolution” – and calls for the elimination of many of the local institutions of higher education in declining parts of the country like the Dakotas, proposing instead their consolidation into “The Dakota Territory College System.” He decries the inefficiencies of so many local governments and institutions, holdovers, he asserts, from “the early 20th-century when travel was more difficult and farm families wanted their children close to home during harvest season.”

Brokaw – that chronicler of “The Greatest Generation” that did so much to dismantle the localities of our nation in the oil and auto rush of the 1950′s – sees only inefficiencies and antiquated resistance to “progress” or “evolution.” Quite remarkably, his short memory overlooks our recent experience with $140/barrel oil, and the sudden “new” experience of travel not being quite so easy as we’d grown accustomed to in roughly 30-40 years – a very short time in human history, and one that hardly justifies dismantling those local communities that pre-existed the age of oil and will be desperately needed when we depart that short-lived era. But perhaps more importantly, these institutions are the starved remnants of a period of far greater self-government and the places where a sense of common weal and public good could be articulated by actual citizens. While largely eviscerated by the logic of our age, our impulse should not be to further dismantle them, but to strengthen those local places that still exist while thinking inventively and experimentally to create new places where a felt-sense of self-government can be fostered and cultivated. We should reject calls for “efficiency” and instead install in its place calls for “citizenship.”

Indeed, if anything should be learned from our current crisis, it is that the very apparent “efficiencies” of larger and more consolidated entities actually decrease our capacity to govern ourselves. The current frustrations of our many “Tea Parties” is surely derived from the palpable sense that things have spun wholly out of control and ordinary citizens are being asked to bankroll a system that is almost wholly ungovernable. Consider this (remarkable!) concluding line from Brokaw’s op-ed: “If this is a reset, it’s time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today’s realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the 20th-century. If we demand this from General Motors, we should ask no less than ourselves.” What is truly remarkable – and willfully self-blinding – about this statement is the idea that a further consolidation of our remaining local institutions would be akin to efforts of the central government to shore up or bail out that massive and “too big to fail” organization, General Motors. If anything, the example of General Motors – not to mention AIG and Fannie Mae and Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers – should instruct us not to put all of our eggs into baskets much larger than that which a small set of humans can reasonably be expected to eat. If anything, this “reset” should consist of the obvious instruction that we should be downsizing and decentralizing, retaining and encouraging actual diversities based in local circumstance rather than encouraging the creation of monolithic and homogeneous organizations of such massiveness that they are barely governable and hardly function. Above all, we should avoid further centralization in the name of efficiency that simultaneously leaves the citizenry with a sense of insignificance, powerlessness, irrelevance and indignity. If a deepening of this condition represents the outcome of “evolved” 21st-century progress, then I say we should rather embrace that 18th-century sentiment that inspired the original Tea Parties, and again demand nothing short of real liberty.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar D.W. Sabin April 20, 2009 at 3:52 pm

The condescension of the liberal sectors of the press concerning the impulses of the tea party participants was as dissatisfying as the rather inchoate quality of the tea party events themselves. Listening to a middle class “rebel” complain about “tax increases” when they were about to receive a tax cut made it all a little bizarre.They are putting the cart before the horse. Listening to a liberal commentator sniff with dripping sarcasm at the tea party events….while the government which they support is consolidating an ever more intrusive and debt-spending militaristic edifice is beyond bizarre. What they should be decrying instead of “taxes” are the fundamental dysfunctions behind the taxes. Until this government decides that our Military expenditures , Entitlement program inefficiencies and debt accumulation are unsustainable, any discussion of taxes is academic. There is a wholesale slobbering adulation of large institutions on both sides of the political aisle and this is a rather quixotic state of affairs because both sides of the political aisle have, at one time or another fought against elements of the large institutions that currently plague us. That we have been given a world class demonstration of the hazards of large institutional thinking …and as a result….find ourselves within sympathetic territory for both liberal and conservative commonality …..and still, the old team sport sophism of the last 16+ years holds strong…well, this is what we should be protesting.

Both sides of the political spectrum are simply echo-chambers for a political establishment that is no longer a Representative Government for their States. We are an empire now and while some of this empire-urge may be of good intention, much of the result of our imperial projection is roundhouse clocking us in a variety of ways, unsustainable debt and international alienation being the most significant.

Brokaw’s salute to “efficiency” is entirely predictable. He is part of the Media Establishment that is fed by the status quo. After all, our great campaign of globalist efficiency is speeding us to a more efficient suicide and disasters always garner high Nelson ratings. However, to be fair his sentiment and support of the Establishment are neither malevolent nor unethical, they simply reflect his august station within that Establishment. What he fails to perceive is that the Establishment that has been created by the American imperium is cheering an efficient gutting of everything the Greatest Generation stood for: The principles of Liberty and Self government left us by the Framers , thus producing a population of self-starting citizens that actually regard their fellow citizen with sympathy and support. The Branding of Media and Imperial Politics is creating political antipathy where none rightly exist. It is simply a Bait and Switch….a distraction that is virtually insuring that a damaging political collision will come sooner or later.

During the reign of Charles I , political and religious conflict were intertwined and resulted in an excess of unwanted graduate priests who were termed “Alienated Intellectuals”. One can see a growing number of both alienated intellectuals and disgruntled hoi polloi today and while they may or may not be graduate priests, the cumulative effect of widespread disquiet is destructive. Needless to say, Charles’ tone-deafness in the face of events precipitated the English Civil War and his own death. While we watch as Investment houses that shorted and profited from the debt instruments that got us into trouble then have their losses covered by the inflationary government fiscal policy of massive bail-out…one wonders how much longer the populace will continue to swallow it. It would be nice if some of our leadership stood up and went to work for the welfare of the people and their lapsed-republic. Unfortunately, it would appear that the Establishment is hellbent on the “Let Them Eat Asphalt” indifference that may reprise past civil strife and a little quote from the Luddite rebellions mentioned in Peter Laslett’s book “The World We Have Lost, England Before the Industrial Age” is in order. He cites a particularly colorful quote he found in Edward Thompson’s 1963 book “The Making of the English working class”

To Wit:
“We Hear InFormed that you got shear in mee sheens (shearing machines) and if you Dont Pull them Down in a Forght Nights Time Wee will pull them Down for you Wee will you Damd infernold dog”.

By all accounts, the “damed infernold dogs” seem to beg the lash and ironically, they are more properly termed the Luddites in the way of a more prudent way forward.

avatar Curt Lovelace April 20, 2009 at 5:09 pm

I attended one of the TEA Parties. Let me first state that I am not against taxes. When they are used to meet the constitutionally-intended purposes for taxation, I am willing to put up my share. I am not willing to pay for unconstitutional activities. Nor am I willing to pay your share.

Many in the “movement” of tax protesters have stated that their complaint is not against taxation without representation as was the first Tea Party in Boston Harbor. That may be the case with those individuals. It is not my situation. I am unrepresented in Congress. Millions of others who wish to protect the Constitution of this country are also feeling disenfranchised.

I am certainly not represented by those who claim to represent me. This is the way of democracy, one might say. But the fact is that the”reps” do what they believe is right (or politically expedient) without regard to the beliefs and desires of those they allegedly represent.

In Congress I have one Representative, a liberal Democrat. I also have two allegedly-Republican Senators. All three voted in favor of the “Stimulus Bill.” I sent emails to all three asking that they please vote against this bill. Two responded. Each defended her (yes, all three are female) reasons for voting this monstrosity of a liability onto the backs of my grandchildren. Here is the closing paragraph from the response I got from my friendly Representative.

I am confident that this package is a necessary first step towards jump-starting our struggling economy and putting people back to work in Maine and around the country – in jobs that will rebuild our infrastructure and expand information technology to rural areas, modernize our archaic health care system, strengthen our children’s education and move America towards a sustainable energy future that breaks our dependence on foreign oil. I appreciate your thoughts on the recovery package, and I hope that this letter helps explain my decision to support it.

Please note that this is merely a first step. Both legislators and governors around the nation have promised to tax anything and everything. Combine this power of taxation with the general hatred of Christianity evident among the “elite” classes and we can expect churches to be taxed to the limit – and beyond in the near future.

We’ll get socialized medicine, soon. I probably won’t be able to afford the gas to get to any appointment my government deigns to assign me, though.

In 1776, the year of the birth of this nation, Adam Smith published his great tome, The Wealth of Nations. He had a lot to say about taxes. He listed four basic rules for taxation:

1. “The subject of every State ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the State.” (Perhaps Mr. Timothy Franz Geithner should be reminded of this maxim).

2. “The tax each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain, and not arbitrary. The time of payment, the manner of payment, and the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor, and to ever other person.” (How many pages are there in the IRS code?).

3. “Every tax ought to be levied at the time, or in the manner in which it is most likely to be convenient for the contributor to pay it.” (Convenient for me? Not likely).

4. “Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible, over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the State.” (They don’t take much out of the pockets of many of our government officials).

As I stated, I’m not against legitimate taxes. I’m against foolish, wasteful, non-productive, and confiscatory taxation.

avatar Casey Khan April 21, 2009 at 9:23 am

“namely, a protest against ‘taxation without representation’ – in a deeper sense, there is a profound continuity between these two protests, even if the circumstances and the particular governments in question are radically different.”

Actually, though most people can’t put their finger on it, seigniorage and inflation has been a substantial tax done at the behest of the central banking authority. If we take inflation as it is classically understood, as the excessive creation of money and debt, to the advantage of debtors at the expense of creditors (not merely an increase in a statistically tortured CPI). We can see that this is taxation without representation. Our current monetary policy is dominated by the legal positivism of legal tender laws, and fiat paper money. Money, in our system, has been ontologically reduced from elemental forms (copper, silver, gold) to mere paper, backed by debt at the command of the state.

Inflation and debased money has not only economic effects, but substantial moral effects as well. For this argument I commend the thoughts of the Catholic economist Jorg Guido Hulsmann of the University of Angers:

“The spiritual dimension of these inflation-induced habits seems to be obvious. Money and financial questions come to play an exaggerated role in the life of man. Inflation makes society materialistic. More and more people strive for money income at the expense of personal happiness. Inflation-induced geographical mobility artificially weakens family bonds and patriotic loyalty. Many of those who tend to be greedy, envious, and niggardly anyway fall prey to sin. Even those who are not so inclined by their natures will be exposed to temptations they would not otherwise have felt. And because the vagaries of the financial markets also provide a ready excuse for an excessively parsimonious use of one’s money, donations for charitable institutions will decline.” -Hulsmann, The Ethics of Money Production

The commoners can’t quite put their finger on it, but this is the outrage of taxation without representation that is destroying their lives.

avatar Josh Cooney April 21, 2009 at 5:45 pm

I hate taxes. That’s why I don’t pay them.

avatar Typical Whitey April 21, 2009 at 6:59 pm

It’s the budget and the deficits that motivated me and others I know to attend our Tea Party. BO and Congress are enslaving future generations to onerous conditions to be established by the Chinese and other bond holders.

avatar Bob Cheeks April 22, 2009 at 6:43 am

If, after four months in office, the unctuous supplicant of the House of Saud draws a million members of the bourgeoisie in protest, we can only imagine the remonstrations in a year or so as the economy continues on life support, or God-forbid, worse, or when our Islamic enemies, once again, deliver another blooding.

avatar Patrick Deneen April 22, 2009 at 11:27 am

Mr. Cheeks,
I hate to draw attention to this discomfiting fact, but American Presidents since FDR have been “unctuous supplicants of the House of Saud.” This ongoing supplication is further evidence of our loss of sovereignty, our slavish dependence upon foreign powers that requires ever greater centralization of power to ensure the steady and undisrupted flow of “foreign” oil (a.k.a. “oil”) to our shores. I believe, above all, the protests were an inchoate demand for the real capacity and opportunity for self-government. What is more difficult to discern are the structural obstacles – political, economic and otherwise – that make such self-government all but impossible, and the actual complicity of even the participants of these protests in the conditions of their own loss of self-rule. Anger is no substitute for self-understanding, which is more difficult to televise – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s FOX or MSNBC we’re talking about here. Image cannot replace understanding, and we sorely lack the capacity and resources – above all opportunities for and engagement in actual speech – for sustained inquiry into our own condition.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 22, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Typical Whitey,
I am in complete agreement regarding the sheer gall of rising budgets and deficits. What is needed at these here Tea Parties is a simple list that goes way beyond taxation to address the Manifest Degradations and Cockeyed Tomfoolery of The Gunpoint Ebola represented by Inefficient Bureaucracy and the Military Clusterboink. Democracy at Gunpoint is the kind of Bait and Switch only dreamed up by criminal elements.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 22, 2009 at 8:03 pm

Not to mention the Great Parade of the External Cost Priesthood that thinks as long as the burning bag of sheist is on somebody elses porch then all is well at the helm.

avatar nemski April 23, 2009 at 6:37 pm

Your article conveniently left out the fact that the majority of protesters were mainly white. If what you say is true, would not the African-American feel an even more justified lack of control towards the government and hence, play a bigger part in the tea parties.

avatar Boz April 27, 2009 at 8:48 am

Patrick,
As a student of political theory you should be a little more careful on the Mandeville-Smith connection. Smith doesn’t explicitly answer Mandeville by name (except in a footnote or two) but in his remarks on capital formation in Book 2 of WN he goes after the notion that vice and profligacy can be the basis of national prosperity, essentially arguing that wealth accumulation and investment requires self-restraint (i.e., saving). Obviously, self-restraint isn’t coextensive with the whole of Christian virtue (and Smith is aware of this as well; try following his revisions to TMS over the years), but the ways in which virtue and character are reshaped by commercial capitalism are pretty complex.

avatar jeff v June 15, 2009 at 9:02 pm

My only critique of the Tea Parties is that they came a year too late. If they had taken place at a time when the economic crisis was fomenting they may have made a difference. Instead they came out looking like a knee-jerk reaction from those disappointed in the election results.

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